"We were the number one place to be in Hollywood on Oscar night!" Josh Rubinstein gushes, reminiscing about the three celeb-laden Academy Awards parties he helped plan as one of the L.A. events supervisors for Lord of the Rings superfan site TheOneRing.net (TORn). Elijah Wood, Peter Jackson and most of the cast and crew preferred celebrating their gold statuettes with fans in suits of armor over execs in suits of Armani, ditching the New Line Cinema party each year in favor of TORn's.
"At the Fellowship [of the Ring] party, [makeup, props, costumes and special effects creator] Richard Taylor showed up totally drunk and was letting everybody hold his Oscar," Rubinstein says. "He was like, 'Take my Oscar! Take it!'"
What began in 1999 with Kiwi co-founder Erica Challis defying numerous cease-and-desist orders to sneak over fences and take photos of the LoTR production in New Zealand and sharing what she found with a small group of fans around the world has become the web's leading authority on all things Tolkien, with over 66,000 Facebook likes, two published books of interpretive essays and a unique, friendly relationship with the filmmakers who brought Middle Earth to life. This past Saturday, TORn held their annual Griffith Park potluck picnic to commemorate Bilbo Baggins' birthday, September 22, which not coincidentally is the date The Hobbit was published 75 years ago, in 1937.
Over a hundred fans in tunics, capes, prosthetic elf ears and Renaissance Faire dresses gathered between the carousel and the Old Zoo, nestled behind the bouncy castles of at least four children's birthday parties. Beneath a "Happy Birthday Bilbo Baggins" banner strung between two white birch trees, Shire aficionados relaxed on blankets and in collapsible camping chairs, taking turns reading passages from the tome itself. Life-sized cardboard cut-outs of Viggo Mortensen as Aragorn, John Rhys-Davies as Gimli and Orlando Bloom as Legolas festooned a green and white tent containing victuals aplenty, including seed cake, a Hobbit favorite made by Susan Fox from a recipe in a 1966 issue of Diplomat Magazine, and Elven Lembas bread, made by Laura Gray-Weber ("One small bite is enough to fill a grown man!").
"Tolkien fans try to exemplify the qualities of Hobbits," Rubinstein says.
"They like to eat a lot!" Anne Mooshammer, 11, adds. "And they like things that like to grow."
"Yes, they're agrarian," agrees TORn's weekly webcaster Clifford Broadway in his sonorous, enunciated voice. "They appreciate the comforts of hearth and home. A nice afternoon with a pipe. They never miss second breakfast."
Broadway, who has a white chinstrap beard, piercing blue eyes and a commanding presence, co-produced a 2005 documentary called "Ringers: Lord of the Fans," which was narrated by actor Dominic Monaghan, who played Meriadoc Brandybuck in the films.
"My elbow is in it," Rubinstein says, referring to the documentary.
TORn is less cerebral than the Mythopoeic Society, a group devoted to the academic analysis of the fantasy genre, but its members are happy to squabble over decisions made when converting the books to the movies. Why did Tom Bombadil not make it from the page to the screen? ("He stops the story cold!" Rubinstein scoffs.) Why does Jackson compress Gandalf's 17 years of research about the ring into what seems like less than a month? ("They wanted to make it more urgent!" sputters Nathan Kosoy, 13.)
Chatter and conjecture soon shifts to the three Hobbit films Jackson is now working on, the first of which will be released on December 14. Where will the movies end, and where will they begin? Will the animals be able to speak? Last Wednesday, the trailer for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey finally appeared online; by Thursday, TORn had posted a nine-page, frame-by-frame dissection.
Up next: how will The Hobbit become three whole movies?
The new Hobbit movie trailer
Kosoy, who carries a thick branch as a staff and has yellow braces and overgrown eyebrows, turns to Broadway.
"Will they actually have all the singing?" he asks.
"Unknown," Broadway intones. "We know the dwarves are singing, because we saw that in the trailer. But will the goblins sing?"
"They have like two big songs," Nathan says.
"They do!" Broadway says. "You know, the goblins actually go to have a business meeting with the Wargs. I don't know if that's even going to be in the film or not."
"Well, for special edition they gotta save some stuff," interjects Steven Kosoy, Nathan's father.
The biggest question looming in the minds of LoTR junkies is how Jackson will expand this relatively short book into three movies. The original trilogy compressed over 1200 pages of material into three full-length features, but The Hobbit is only 280 pages, with an additional 130 pages of appendices.
"If you read [The Hobbit] out loud, it only takes eleven hours," explains the bespectacled, professorial Mike Urban, who took medieval Welsh in college to help him better understand Tolkien's language games and whom Broadway describes as "one of the most learned, learned fans in southern California."
So why are they making three movies?
"We cannot speak for the reasons they are doing things," Urban says.
"I can," Broadway retorts.
"Well, okay, Mr. Insider!" Steven Kosoy says.
"A few million dollars [investment from Warner Brothers] equals another billion dollar box office," Broadway says, explaining that with the set already built and the actors already in New Zealand, it made financial sense to expand. "But Peter, when you ask him in an interview, Peter will say, 'I've got so much more story to tell.'"
The bottom line might also explain why heartthrob Orlando Bloom will appear in the films, even though his character, the Elven prince, Legolas, does not have a role in the book.
"[The movies] might actually be really entertaining, but it won't be The Hobbit," Urban says. "I consider it a missed opportunity. [Jackson] had an opportunity to make the definitive Hobbit and didn't."
"For some hard-core purists, it doesn't matter how many Oscars Peter Jackson receives," Broadway says. Already, some are upset that Jackson has added an entirely new character, a military captain played by Evangeline Lilly.
Shelly Malmon, whose husband David sports a t-shirt that says "Affiliated Bladesmiths - Local 1892 - Mordor," rolls her eyes when the subject of discrepancies between the texts and the films arises.
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"People need to get over themselves," she says. "I know [Jackson]'s going to try his best. Will things be perfect? Will 100 percent of moviegoers be happy?" She shrugs. "Will they ever? I will definitely see it the first day."
Steven Kosoy thinks most fans would agree with Malmon.
"A lot of people who are upset about the discrepancies are only gonna see it five times instead of ten times," he says.